Many years ago
The boy ran for his life, his heart pounding like a thundering drum as the beast chased him in the dark. He never thought his day would end, or that his life would end as a meal. He ran with everything he had. He had to live. His mother depended on him. No brothers, no sisters—he had to survive for her.
Mr. Tolbert gave him extra money to work late. He let him earn extra money by staying late, cleaning the equipment, and putting everything up. His mother needed the money; she needed medicine.
He’d worked for the man for several years, every day after school and during the summer, working in the fields. He argued with his mother about it. He told her he should quit school. That way he could work more. He argued that most of his friends had quit. She told him no, in her tone that meant there was no room for discussion. The discussion was over. Instead, he asked to work longer hours. Mr.
Tolbert let him stay, cleaning to earn more money.
He walked home under the full moon, only three miles. He didn’t mind the walk; he had his slingshot with him and hoped he would run across a rabbit on the way. He could bring it home to his mother. She would be proud of him, and they could have a rabbit the next night.
He slung his shoes over his shoulder, Mr. Tolbert wouldn’t let them work without them, and he didn’t want to wear them out on his walk home. The road was well-used, with very few stones, so it was fine. He listened for anything moving in the dark, waiting for something to move, his slingshot in one hand and a small, smooth stone in the other. His hopes were for a rabbit, but he would settle for a possum. He could stun it with the slingshot and finish it with his knife, like many other times.
The wind blew softly. It was a clear night under the full bright moon illuminating the road. A rustling in the woods came from behind him. He turned in time to see a rabbit dart across the road. Its feet barely touched the ground as it ran. The boy couldn’t get his slingshot up in time.
Another rabbit darted across the road, smaller but moving even faster. He tried to hit it, firing one quick, unprepared shot. It was moving too fast. He held no real hope of hitting it.
More movement in the brush—something large, moving fast. The tops of small bushes moved, shaken by the passing of something. His heart raced. A large, dark brown shape leaped over the brush at the road’s edge. It landed in the middle of the road less than twenty feet from him, its dark coat with a streak of black trailing down its back to the tip of its white tail. The deer’s white tail was high in the air as it blew at him. The boy wished he had a gun, a rifle. He and his mother could eat for a long time on such an animal. The deer’s tail flipped twice; two more deer bounded across the road, leaping with elegance and grace as they lightly touched the ground before bouncing back to the other side of the road.
A stray thought ran through the boy’s head: Just what were they running from…a panther? But they were rare. He personally had never seen a live one.
Before he could ponder further, more sounds came from the woods. The deer’s tail flipped once again as it leaped into the air, passing over the edge and into the woods. The entire encounter lasted seconds, from the first rabbit to the deer slipping away.
The tops of the small bushes moved, no simple shake like a deer. Something massive moved through the woods, like a giant tramping through a village. It moved with purpose as it plowed through everything in its path.
Another deer leapt into the air, its head arched, its legs stretched out, reaching for the freedom just beyond its grasp. The beast came out of the woods like a bullet. Its momentum carried it into the deer as it jumped. They collided. The beast engulfed the deer as it crossed over to the other side of the road. The deer cried out, a simple muffled scream of pain.
No sound, no movement. Nothing happened.
The boy ran.
Never before had he seen or heard of something that big, moving that fast. He’d heard the stories of black bears, but even they were nothing compared to that. It was massive and moved faster than anything he had ever seen. He would run all the way home and tell his mother. She would know what it was.
He glanced back at the spot the creature landed on the other side of the road. Just out of sight, he couldn’t see it. That made it so much worse. He only saw a glimpse of its large teeth and thick fur.
He slowed. His feet hurt. He shouldn’t have taken his shoes off. A massive dark shape rose from the same spot, too far away to make out any details. The moon at its back, its shape was outlined by the moon. Something was wrong with it: too big at the top and it stood on two feet. Its massive head looked up and down the road, something very human about its movements. The deer’s body hung limply in its jaws. It held the deer by the neck as it stood, casually, like holding a bucket.
The boy ran as hard as he had ever run. He wanted nothing more than to be at home. He didn’t look back. He didn’t see the deer drop from the beast’s mouth. He didn’t see it run back across the road in a flash of movement. He did hear the beast’s roar as it echoed across the night. His thudding heart pumped so hard tears formed in his eyes.
The beast ran along the side of the road, past him as if he stood still. The tops of the bushes shook in its passing. The boy stopped, pulling out his knife. He held it out in his shaking hands. His jaw clenched so hard his teeth felt like they were about to crack. The boy held his ground, knife out, thoughts of the stories the old men would tell at night—stories of giant bears that would attack men. He could fight it. He couldn’t outrun it, but maybe he could scare it.
The beast moved slowly down the side of the road. Hidden, it moved low to the ground. He could see the bushes shake. A low growl echoed in the night.
The boy held his small hunting knife in front of him. The old knife shined bright in the moonlight. It was one of his most treasured possessions, the only thing he had of his father’s, the only thing he knew of him. His mother refused to talk about him. His father left to fight in the war—left his mother, left him, and left the knife. A small wooden handle had darkened to a neat black finish after years of use. On the hilt of his blade, three letters he always thought belonged to the maker. It never occurred to him that they were his father’s initials. Even in the dark, the ‘J.A.C.’ shone brightly on the side.
The boy made up stories about his father. He never told anyone about them, but he imagined he went off to war and fought as the bravest soldier that ever was. He imagined he found some kind of purpose, a purpose that kept him away from his mother. He imagined he would one day come back and explain it all to him. That’s why he held the knife, and that’s why he held the knife out and screamed at the beast with his roar. He roared with all he had, screaming with everything he could muster. He reached deep down into his chest and screamed like he was a giant lion staking out his territory.
The beast was not impressed. It leaped out, its claws ripping across his body, from his hip to his shoulder. It opened him up, throwing him down the road. It tossed him into the air, rolling end over end to the edge of the road.
The boy had never been hit so hard in all his life. He lay on his back, bloody and half-broken. He tried to move, tried to run home.
The beast stood over him. Its foul breath washed over him. He was blinded by the blood in his eyes, his blood. The beast put its paw, hand, or talon on his chest. He couldn’t see its face, but he could see its eyes, dark yellow. It looked at him for a long moment, peering down. Hot saliva dripped down on the boy, landing on his chest.
The beast’s head lowered, peered into the boy’s eyes with one large yellow eye. The large eye locked onto him, gazing into his eyes. The boy showed no fear, just a will to live, a will to fight. He tried to move, to fight, to run, not from fear but to escape the beast.
The beast took a step back as he rolled to his side; wiping his blood from his face, he tried to stand, holding his hand across his chest to stop the blood from pouring out of him. His feet shuffled as he tried to move, tried to run. His feet felt heavy, filled with lead. The world tilted as he moved, like gravity pulled at him at an angle.
The beast stood on his back legs again and leaned over him. It towered over him, its foul hot breath coming down on him. It breathed in his scent. His own blood running down his leg felt cold as it dripped from him.
The beast bit into him, its teeth digging deep into his shoulder; large, jagged teeth sank deep into him. The boy cried out in pain as a white-hot burning sensation coursed through him. It burned into him, causing his body to shake and tremble as he lost consciousness.
Later, the boy heard a voice yelling his name.
“Theron, boy, is that you?” The voice was familiar. He couldn’t place it. He should have known it. “Just hold on, boy. It will be all right. I will get you home,” Doctor Mallard said. “You are going to be fine.” Theron was thankful for his help in getting home.
Later, he would spend much of his life running that from that same home.